What is Pragmatics? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 The Purpose of Language
  • 0:43 Pragmatics
  • 1:39 Examples
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

You use pragmatics on an everyday basis, but do you know how? Watch this video lesson to not only learn the meaning of pragmatics but also how you use it every day.

The Purpose of Language

Language is a unique quality that sets apart the human race from all other species. Language has allowed mankind to communicate and express ideas, which has had a major factor in our development over time. However, language does not merely consist of words and phrases. Different types of expression are embedded in our language; most of which we use without even noticing.

For any specific language, natural speakers will inherently know the uses and the rules for many types of expressions. These rules determine the interaction between people and between societies. This lesson will look at one aspect of those rules: pragmatics.


Pragmatics is a branch of linguistics, which is the study of language. Pragmatics focuses on conversational implicature, which is a process in which the speaker implies and a listener infers. Simply put, pragmatics studies language that is not directly spoken. Instead, the speaker hints at or suggests a meaning, and the listener assumes the correct intention.

In a sense, pragmatics is seen as an understanding between people to obey certain rules of interaction. In everyday language, the meanings of words and phrases are constantly implied and not explicitly stated. In certain situations, words can have a certain meaning. You might think that words always have a specifically defined meaning, but that is not always the case. Pragmatics studies how words can be interpreted in different ways based on the situation.


The definition might be a bit confusing, so let's look at some examples to clarify the role of pragmatics in our language. This first example is one that you probably use in your own life every day. Say you are in line at a store to pay for your purchases. The cashier asks, 'How are you today?' Do you immediately go into an in-depth account of your health issues, varying mood, relationship status, and everything else going on in your life? Of course not! Usually, you respond with something similar to, 'Fine, how are you?' with the same expectation that the cashier will not go into full detail of how she truly is. This interaction perfectly shows pragmatics at work. It is understood that this question does not really ask you to explain everything going on in your life. The implication relies on the context and situation. It is good manners to ask strangers how they are, but it is not intended for a detailed response.

Many times you can see pragmatics working when there is an ambiguous meaning - vague or unclear, idea or sentence. As always, the situation will make the ambiguous wording clear. For example, imagine you are at the airport, and you have already checked in your luggage. Then you approach the escalator and see a sign that reads, 'Luggage must be carried on the escalator.' Does this mean that you must return to the counter and get your luggage back so you can carry it on the escalator? Of course not! The understood meaning is that if you have luggage, it should be carried and not rolled on the escalator. You can use the situation to determine the true meaning.

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